I think I’m at least as familiar with the shortcomings of the bog-standard school as Nick Cohen, which is why I try to keep a reasonably open-mind on this issue – but I have a couple of problems with this fashionable iconoclasm towards the comprehensive system.
For one, while it is certainly true that social mobility has declined since the 1950s and that this has coincided with the dismantling of the grammar school system, I can’t recall any of the advocates of grammar schools producing evidence that the former is caused by the latter. Harry, who links the piece approvingly, points out that Hattersely and Kinnock, fierce opponents of selection, both went to grammar schools, as did “huge chunks of the educational establishment.” I’m not sure what to make of this argument. If these are being held up as an example of the meritocratic credentials of the grammar school system, my scepticism remains pretty much intact.
And even more so if you apply the theory to Scotland. Here John Reid and Jack McConnell, along with “huge chunks of the educational establishment” were educated in Catholic schools in Lanarkshire. Anyone who believes this reflects the merits of denominational education in this part of the world is capable of believing anything.
The other problem I have is with the tone of these arguments. They’re all about providing escape hatches from the hell of the “bog-standard comprehensive”, without any apparent interest in why they’re hellish in the first place. Nick Cohen is right to point out that the parents of the “thick rich kids” unable to pass private entrance exams buy better education for them through house-purchase. But since these schools don’t practice selection, isn’t it worth asking why they are better?
This question, I suspect, would at least raise the possibility that the structure of the education system doesn’t have anything like the effect on social mobility as people assume. Moreover, even if it did – what of those left behind, for whatever reason, in the bog-standard/neo-secondary moderns? Could someone spare a thought for these, along with all those in institutions that fall well below the ‘bog-standard’? And is it only me who thinks one of the reasons behind declining social mobility is the simple fact that in order to make the journey from pauperism to prosperity, you have to travel so much further than you used to?